Overcoming Imposter Syndrome and Learning to Dream

It has taken me more than twenty years of working to realize I deserve to love a job that loves me back.

For so long, I thought: Who am I to have a job that pays well and appreciates my gifts and excites me? That seemed like too much to ask. It felt like believing in fairies, wishing I could fly, or lassoing the moon.

When I told my therapist this, I expected her to nod in agreement. Instead, she said, “You’re not reaching for the moon. These are reasonable qualities to want from a job.”

I let her words sink in.

“Where do you think this is coming from?” she asked. “This belief that you don’t deserve this kind of job?”

Well, history, I thought. I thought of the women who came before me, who fought so hard for a piece of the pie and barely got a bite. I felt I owed them so much and that I should be happy with what I have. Who was I to want more?

Research shows that I’m not the only person, and certainly not the only Black woman who feels this way. The reasons behind these feelings are complicated, based on a mixture of indebtedness, imposter syndrome, and historic workplace inequities.

I thought of the women who came before me, who fought so hard for a piece of the pie and barely got a bite. I felt I owed them so much and that I should be happy with what I have. Who was I to want more?

Who do you think you are?

I come from a long line of women who worked hard in thankless jobs.

In the early 20th Century, many of my female forebears worked in factories of all types, helped their spouses on the farm, and picked cotton as sharecroppers. These jobs paid very little and did not fulfill them or recognize their many gifts. These women had other dreams for themselves – hopes of thriving financially, of being managers, of owning their own homes, of being pastors, of going to college. Some achieved these dreams and more. The hopes they couldn’t achieve in their lifetime, they planted in their children and worked like crazy to see them grow.

I didn’t want to let these women down. They’d fought just so I could have a seat at the table. I feared that if I dreamed too much or asked too much of a job, that this seat would disappear. Rarely did I believe I even deserved a seat, and so I didn’t question when the seat was too small, or uncomfortable, or in the wrong room altogether. Instead, I thought: You have a job that pays you and that is consistent. Who are you to want more? Who do you think you are?

Imposter syndrome and Black women

This “Who do you think you are?” thinking, I learned later, is symptomatic of imposter syndrome, the feeling that no matter what you achieve, you aren’t deserving of it.

While widespread among all people, imposter syndrome is more common among people of color, and Black women in particular. Though imposter syndrome is mostly thought of as an internal phenomenon, for Black women and other women of color, it is compounded by external messaging from a society that discounts our talents, ignores our achievements, and downplays our observations of racial and gender inequality.

And though we may want more, it can be hard to feel justified in desiring it. This feeling that we are lucky to have a job doesn’t just come from nowhere – it comes from our observations of the workplace. In 2019, Black workers as well as American Indians and Alaska Natives were each more than twice as likely to experience unemployment as white workers (6% compared to 3%, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics), and Black employment is adversely impacted by economic downturns for more prolonged periods than white workers (case in point: the current COVID pandemic).

And, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics and research from Glassdoor, Black women are less likely to be employed in the managerial and professional positions that are commonly associated with higher pay and greater levels of satisfaction; we’re also more likely to experience workplace discrimination.

In addition, we often feel we can’t bring our whole selves to work because we experience higher levels of discrimination and are less likely than our white colleagues to feel we can talk about grief, racial inequality, and the impact of current events, according to a report by McKinsey & Company and Lean In. This is partially based on our knowledge of how much more slowly we are promoted to managerial positions – despite our achievements –  and our constant awareness of our perceived “otherness.”

So, when we do get a job, and one that happens to pay well or that promotes us to greater responsibility, we may be more likely to hang on for dear life. Whether we like the job, or whether the job is a good fit for us may seem beside the point. For me, pondering such ideas felt like a luxury I couldn’t afford.

I can’t help but think our mothers wanted more.

Learning to dream

My mother did want more. During my school years, she worked as a freelance graphic designer for various department stores. In her free time, she made art, beautifully depicting African and African American stories on gourds and Nigerian calabashes. She worked so much at it that she soon began to share her work in museums and public arts spaces throughout North Carolina.

I’m learning to stop downplaying my contributions and achievements, to receive compliments directly without deflecting, to know what I want, to ask for it, and to not be (too) surprised when I receive it. And, like my mother, I’m learning to feed my creative appetite without apologizing for being hungry.

My mom always had a steady “day” job – when I graduated from college, she became a middle school art teacher – because she was pragmatic; like me, she felt fortunate to have a good, dependable job.

But she always found a way to find time for work that fed her creatively. Even when she was teaching, a job that is notoriously demanding, she squeezed in her own art projects during the summer or read books that would inspire later creative endeavors.

Seeing her continue to do something that was totally for herself, that wasn’t practical or that didn’t come from a place of indebtedness or inadequacy was instructive to me.

It took me many years before I felt I deserved to try this, too. I gravitated instead toward jobs I felt were secure and where I felt I could make a difference. I became a teacher, a journalist, a freelance writer. I tried running my own yoga business, but desiring stability and doubting my talents, I drifted back to fulltime work.

It took getting to know other Black women in professional careers to quiet that inner voice that said I wasn’t worthy. Seeing their brilliance, their unabashed ability to acknowledge their skills and contributions with grace and without apology has helped me see what it looks like to own what I want and to go after it. They have also helped me see my own gifts and talents, recommending me for opportunities I never would have pursued because I was afraid to leave my seat at the table for another one.

But because of these women, I am learning. I’m learning to stop downplaying my contributions and achievements, to receive compliments directly without deflecting, to know what I want, to ask for it, and to not be (too) surprised when I receive it. And, like my mother, I’m learning to feed my creative appetite without apologizing for being hungry.

I think this is what my forbears wanted for me. They didn’t want me to feel I owed them, just as I don’t want my children or grandchildren to feel they owe me. These women fought tooth and nail for a better future – not so I could contain myself in a box, but so that I could break free of it.

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